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Asimov | Iain Banks
| Ken Macleod |
David Brin | Stephen
Baxter | Peter F Hamilton
| Greg Egan
Stephen Baxter's novels are well known for two things. Hard science, and NASA bashing. Hard science, because he manages to weave advanced quantum mechanics into the storyline of his novels magnicently. NASA bashing, because he's researched the history of NASA so thoroughly that when he writes about NASA, you know that he speaks the truth.
to check out a sample of his work, but you've got no money? Look no further
than the Baxterium,
which has one of his short stories, Prospero One, online. Go to the 'Fiction
samples' link to check it out.
This review was originally posted on Amazon.co.uk's website
Click here to read the book's blurb
Click here for Keith Brooke's (founder of Infinity+) slant on this review
Let me first say that I'm a great fan of Stephen Baxter's books. He's one of the UK's foremost science fiction writers, and novels such as Titan and Moonseed attest to that fact.
You can probably guess that I'm now going to say that I didn't like Time. In my opinion, Time was a major step back for Baxter. I've always admired his skills in dealing with 'hard' SF, and the way he manages to weave it into an engrossing plot. Unfortunately, in Time, he isn't up to scratch.
For the first part of the book, everything goes swimmingly. It reads like the old Baxter books we have known and loved - NASA acting stupid, a lone man standing against disaster and succeeding against all odds. Add a bit of hard science that's realistic yet intriguing, and you have a recipe for a bestseller.
After the first part of the book, it all goes downhill. The tantalising prospect of asteroid mining was wiped away in paragraphs. The storyline hops from character to character, never staying on one person long enough for you to identify with them. Small pieces of information presented as mini-chapters fly by, and ultimately don't amount to much at all. An entire mini-storyline of the book, involving the USA's effort of retribution against the hero, Malenfant, ends so abruptly that I was left wondering whether I'd actually missed out a dozen pages.
The squid characters, who seemed to so promising at the start, not unlike David Brin's Uplift characters, quickly disappeared from view. They just seem like some kind of plot device that's just thrown in for good measure, and discarded when the author has something better to write about.
It gets worse. Traditionally, Baxter's description of quantum physics and big-bang science has never been at fault. Until now. I've got a rudimentary knowledge of physics - I read New Scientist and the pop science books like Elegant Universe. Yet I still didn't have a clue about what the hell the characters were going on about. I still didn't, even when they performed a bit of data-dumping.
The whole 'universe-jumping' section, which went on for far too long to serve its purpose, left me wondering how it was supposed to be possible. Ditto the existence of life in the unimaginable future - with consciousness suspending in some kind of finite quantum matrix.
The 'Blue' super-intelligent kids left me floundering. Were they emissaries from the future? Were they communicating with the future? Were they just simply super-intelligent? Perhaps I'm slow for not figuring it out. And there's my ever present question. If humanity was supposed to collapse the vacuum state of the universe, why the hell didn't the future humans do it themselves, huh? Why go to the trouble of going back in time to work it all out then, denying humanity the fun it richly deserves by zooming around the galaxy?
Baxter simply tried too hard with Time. He threw in far too many new scientific ideas, many of which were incomprehensible, and there wasn't enough of a storyline. At the end, I thought, so what? I never really got to know the characters. I couldn't really give a (your choice of expletive) if they died or not. In one case, a character died, and lived. Don't ask me how.
Some of his old tricks are wearing thin now, as well. He's written one too many books where NASA and the US military bears the brunt of the author's scorn. Maybe it's justified, maybe it's not. But couldn't NASA be the good guys, for once? Then there's the idea that mankind is around to create daughter universes by producing black holes. Since I've recently read Earth, by David Brin, and Vacuum Diagrams, I'm getting a little tired of this.
I have nothing against Baxter. I personally think Vacuum Diagrams is the best collection of short stories I've ever read. After Moonseed and Titan, two outstanding novels, I was expecting more of the same. The Times reviewer claimed that Time put Baxter firmly into the ranks of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. Trust me - this isn't true. He'll have to try a lot harder to reach those heights.
Of all the works Stephen Baxter has written, Vacuum Diagrams surely represents the most ambitious, and most successful. Consisting of 21 short stories (22 if you include the not inconsiderable bridging story), Vacuum Diagrams spans a common universe lasting millions of years - epic in every sense.
Setting the tone perfectly, the first installment of the bridging story, Eve, sees the humans' ambassador to the Ghosts, an alien race, investigate rumours of the Ghosts' use of the dangerous Quagma.
(Let me take this opportunity to point out that Baxter writes some of the hardest SF out there - don't get taken in by my casual use of the word 'quagma', which in his words, 'is the state of matter which emerged from the Big Bang. Matter, when raised to sufficiently high temperatures, melts into a magma of quarks - a quagma. And at such temperatures the fundamental forces of physics unify into a single superfoce. Quagma is bound together only by such a superforce. When quagma is allowed to cool and expand the superforce decomposes into the four sub-forces.'
Then we kick into the meat of the collection. The book is split into seven sections of stories, cataloguing events from humanity's first bright optimistic venturings into the solar system, to the trying times of the alien oppression, then to our futile war against the near-omnipotent Xeelee, and finally to our depressing and wasteful demise.
BTW, if you call that a spoiler, it ain't. There's more to Vacuum Diagrams than what I've just said.
The Sun-People begins the first section, Era: Expansion. Set on an asteroid on the outskirts of the solar system, the viewpoint of the story switches between the familiar and the alien. It's interesting to view events from a completely alien perspective, but Baxter entrenches the story in typical human terms and emotions, with a solid ending.
Now, The Logic Pool is a completely different kettle of fish. Baxter presents a very original storyline here, with entities that are not quite machines, but not quite artificial intelligences, striving for survival. These entities are unthinkingly put to use by a physicist who merely seeks to use them to prove or disprove a particular cosmological principle. Fun stuff.
Gossamer - out of the 22 stories, this is the one that I never seem to remember much. Running throughout all the stories (and indeed all his novels), Baxter loves to explore the possibilities of life finding a way to survive in any place, any time. Life on Pluto? Of course! This wasn't particuarly riveting, to be honest.
Without a doubt, Cilia-of-Gold is one of the strongest stories in the entire collection. Depicting a typical SF/fantasy setting on one hand, with a group of aliens desperately battling for survival against other organisms, the storyline also interchanges with humans exploring Mercury, and making a startling discovery. A tidy ending sees the humans, and remarkably, the aliens, meet up. Also one of the longer stories.
Lieserl is pretty unlike the other stories here - it has a very strong human thread running all the way throughout it. Hardly any mention of science or technology is made, except for where necessary, and the most interesting part is imagining how life would be for a girl who grows at a speed of a year a day. Of course, she's an experiment. Exactly what for though, and the ethics of it, are another thing completely...
Beginning the Era: Squeem Occupation section is Pilot. Pilot is another well-rounded story, where the last few humans still free from the Squeem are desperately trying to escape in an asteroid with fusion engines strapped on. Convincing science and a convincing plot, as well as a healthy imagination on Baxter's part make this a good read.
It's unlike Baxter to write humour, but The Xeelee Flower manages to pull it off quite well. A typical story of human ingenuity managing to outwit the dumb-yet-powerful aliens is one we've all seen before, repeated thousands of times, but I never tire of reading them. Good fun, this story.
And much like the last story, More Than Time or Distance is another human-ingenuity-winning-despite-the-odds tale. Perhaps the reason I remember this story so well is because it was where I first encountered the theory of instantaneous communication through entangled particles.
The Switch is a fairly unmemorable and formulaic storyline. Thankfully short, you have your usual brave captain and oppressed technician who's being constantly bullied and made fun of by a (yes, you guessed it) large and physically strong, yet not very bright crewmember. What a surprise, the technician manages to off the crewmember.
The next section, Era: Qax Occupation, sets the tone for the rest of the book - inevitable decline. While reading the last section, you got the feeling that while the Squeem oppressed Earth, they were essentially quite silly and not very bright or vicious.
Then you meet the Qax, aliens who are altogether nasty guys. Blue Shift sees the Qax hire a human to take a captured Xeelee spacecraft on an expedition to have a gander at a strange construct that seems to be pulling everything in the universe towards it. One of the better stories in the collection, and the way the hero handles the Qax at the end is a nice piece of work.
It would have been interesting to read more stories where humanity was under the heel of the Qax, yet Blue Shift is the only one in Vacuum Diagrams. Despite this fact, both The Quagma Datum and Planck Zero, set after the occupation, are in the same section. Search me why.
The former, is well, so-so. Through the last few stories, you'll have picked up the fact that humanity can't be bothered making new inventions because the Xeelee, incredibly old and incredibly powerful, aloof aliens that they are, have already invented everything there is to invent. Of course, there's always an exception to the rule, and in The Quagma Datum, a human entrepreneur sends a scientist off on a race against the Ghosts to find a strange artefact left over from the Big Bang using a novel method of propulsion.
Planck Zero is another great story, and moreover, it features the protagonist of the bridging story, Eve. The Ghosts are up to the usual schemes with quagma, attempting to make a bubble-universe that has no Uncertaincy Principle, where you could have limitless amounts of computing power. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Naturally, our hero saves the day (well, part of it, anyway).
Era: Assimilation is obviously a much darker, bitter affair than the rest of the book. All the stories feature optimistic, brave characters, but in every case they're outnumbered by those blinded by a hopeless quest to defeat the Xeelee - humanity is on a war footing.
The Godel Sunflowers, while presenting an interesting concept of a fractal 'snowflake' surrounding a star which contains huge amounts of information, fails to involve the reader much. You get a sensation of detachment - as if you don't really care about the characters involved.
On the other hand, Vacuum Diagrams more than makes up for this shortcoming. Featuring Paul, a person who we see later in the book, the short story deals with a strange impenetrable Xeelee artefact which humanity is trying to peer inside. Paul is found, as if from nowhere, on the artefact, and possesses the strange ability to percieve non-local events (i.e., he can see through things - of course, it's not as simple as that).
I quite liked the twist in this story - it's a surreal affair, and shows how far humanity has gone, in that we've progressed so far, but still know so little.
Click here to read the book's blurb